MOULTRIE, Ga. — Colquitt County elections officials are gearing up for another onslaught of mail-in ballots.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger activated his office’s website, https://securevotega.com/secureabsentee, last week where Georgia voters can request a mail-in absentee ballot for the Nov. 3 General Election.
County registrars can start mailing out ballots in response to those requests as early as Tuesday, Sept. 15, according to the Secretary of State's website. Colquitt County's registrar's office plans to start sending them Friday.
Voters will be able to mail them back or drop them into a secure box outside the Colquitt County Courthouse Annex any time before the election.
Under Georgia law, elections officials must receive the ballot by 7 p.m. on Election Day to count it, but that law was nullified by U.S. District Judge Eleanor Ross on Aug. 31. Under Ross’s order, elections officials must accept any mail-in ballot that was postmarked by Election Day, so long as it arrives within the following three days. The state has appealed her decision to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Colquitt County Probate Judge Wes Lewis, who serves as the county’s elections superintendent, expects a strong mail-in response.
Lewis said more than half of Colquitt County’s ballots in the June 9 presidential preference primary were cast before the election date, with the vast majority of those coming in by mail.
Republican Donald Trump, who was unopposed, drew 5,302 Colquitt County votes while an assortment of Democrats drew 1,522. Of Trump’s votes, 2,227 were cast on mail-in ballots and 631 were cast in-person during the early voting period; 2,444 were cast in person on Election Day. Among the Democratic Party votes, 832 came in by mail and 94 in-person during early voting; 596 were cast in person on Election Day.
“The voting by mail percentage … was the highest I’ve ever seen,” said Lewis, who has supervised Colquitt County’s elections for 16 years. “In the past we’ve had maybe a couple hundred.”
Georgia has had mail-in voting for many years, but it has usually required an excuse why the voter can’t cast a ballot on Election Day. Several years ago, the state approved an in-person early voting period where a voter can cast a ballot without an excuse, and the percentage of voters taking advantage of it has increased nearly every election cycle.
The coronavirus pandemic added several new wrinkles this year, including the state mailing an absentee ballot request form to every registered voter ahead of the June 9 election in an effort to put fewer voters in the polling sites on Election Day.
Raffensperger’s office has not sent out ballot request forms ahead of the Nov. 3 election, but it has made it simple to request a mail-in ballot online. A voter can also request one from the Colquitt County Registrar’s Office. Call 616-7056 for details.
Registrar Paula McCullough said on Monday that her office has processed about 700 absentee ballot requests through traditional channels and more than 100 more through the Secretary of State’s website already. Those ballots are ready to be mailed Friday.
Still, it’s nothing like the June election, when her office mailed out more than 4,000 absentee ballots.
McCullough said several state and national organizations are mailing local voters ballot-request forms. She said she’s received calls from voters who think the forms are associated with the Secretary of State’s office. They are not, she said, but they may still be legitimate attempts to help voters be heard.
The concern is duplicate requests. If you’ve already requested a ballot, you don’t need to respond to any other correspondence about it, she said, except to fill out the ballot itself when it arrives.
In spite of efforts to promote mail-in voting, McCullough urges voters to cast ballots in person — just do it early. Early voting is scheduled for 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, Oct. 12-30, in Room 201 of the Courthouse Annex as well as 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24, in the same location.
“If they want to vote in-person, do not request an absentee ballot,” she said. “If they bring it in, we can cancel it, but it’ll hold up the line.”
This year’s emphasis on mail-in ballots have raised concerns about voter fraud, especially double voting, but Lewis said it’s extremely rare from what he’s seen.
In a news conference Sept. 8, Raffensperger announced an investigation into 1,000 people believed to have voted twice in the June 9 primary. Lewis said he has no indication any of those people were in Colquitt County, and he suspects wherever they were the problem was more likely miscommunication than intentional fraud.
“At least in our county I haven’t seen it,” he said. “I feel good about it.”
When a voter casts a ballot in person, a poll worker draws a line through his name on a printout of the voter roll. Lewis said the county registrar does the same thing when an absentee ballot is mailed out. Therefore, if someone who’s requested an absentee ballot goes to the poll to vote, the poll worker should find the name already crossed out, indicating he’s already voted.
If the voter never received the absentee ballot, he can sign an affidavit to that effect and vote at the poll. Otherwise, he has to surrender his absentee ballot in order to vote in person.
“We’re all human. We all make mistakes,” Lewis said, and he said he believes that’s most likely what happened if anyone was able to vote twice in the primary.
Across the state, the coronavirus has also caused a shortage of poll workers. Many who volunteer at the polls are retirees, whose age puts them at a higher risk for serious complications of the virus.
Lewis said locally, though, he’s had no trouble finding poll workers. Some of his longtime workers retired this year, with appropriate notice, and others withdrew because of the virus, but he’s been able to get reliable workers to step into their places. Anyone who’s interested in pitching in can call his office at 616-7415 for more information. Training is scheduled for October.
“I really commend the poll workers in June,” Lewis said. “ … We’re blessed to have a good group of poll workers I know will step up.”
While the state expressed concerns about Judge Ross’s ruling extending the deadline to accept mail-in ballots, Lewis didn’t expect it to be a problem locally.
First, most of the mail-in ballots will arrive by Election Day. Because the registrar will have a count of how many ballots were mailed out and how many were returned, officials will know the maximum that are left to be counted and can accommodate that number.
But also, there are already ballots that aren’t counted on Election Day: provisionals.
A voter casts a provisional ballot when there is a question about whether he or she is legally able to vote. The question can’t be settled at the poll, so he or she is allowed to vote but the ballot is held out until the county registrar can determine if it was legal. That determination must be done in three days, just like the absentee ballot deadline Ross imposed.
Lewis said there are two main reasons a voter might need a provisional ballot. He might show up at the polling place without proper identification, Lewis said; he can cast a provisional ballot but then he’ll need to bring his ID to the registrar’s office to get her to confirm it. Or a voter could believe he’s registered but his name isn’t on the county’s voting list; he could cast a provisional ballot and the registrar’s office has three days to determine whether he was, in fact, registered.
Lewis said Colquitt County sees very few provisional ballots in any given election.
As far as the mail-in ballot extension, Lewis’s answer was simple: When the judges reach a final decision what election officials should do, that’s what he’s going to do.